The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 4 (Addressing Alternative Explanations)
While I think the historical evidence for the resurrection is more than solid, no case would be air-tight without addressing some of the most common alternative explanations that attempt to cast doubt upon the Gospel accounts.
The Conspiracy Theory
First suggested in 18th century scholarship, though certainly based upon the earliest Jewish polemic against Christian claims, the conspiracy theory asserts that the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb and fabricated the story of the resurrection for the purposes of establishing a power-motivated dogma. While this theory is contradicted by the historically trustworthy accounts of multiple independent sources (refer to parts 1, 2 and 3, which discuss the evidences for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, the empty tomb, and the establishment of the Christian church), it persists on the basis of skepticism regarding the motive and character of the disciples.
It is unlikely that the disciples were insincere. History verifies through written accounts the motivations and the sufferings of the disciples of Christ, and despite their failure to appropriate power, they persisted in their faith. They were completely aware of the consequence of the message they spread, both from the swift condemnation they would receive from the Jewish authorities, and the likelihood of penalty from Roman authorities, so a drive for power is simply an absurd hypothesis for motive.
Most importantly, however, the conspiracy theory applies modern perspectives on Jewish and Christian theology to men who would certainly not have conceived of such ideas. For the disciples, the death of Jesus served as a definite end to any notion that he was the promised messiah. It wasn’t until after the resurrection that the messiah became understood as not triumphing over just worldly kingdoms and rule, but over death itself and eternal condemnation of the soul. The disciples, far from being shrewd and manipulative theologians, were fishermen and tax collectors, hardly likely suspects for such a deceptive collaboration.
The Apparent-Death Theory
The apparent death theory, also referred to as the ‘swoon theory,’ suggests that Jesus survived the crucifixion, and therefore never died, nor was resurrected. This is probably the least possible of explanations, on the basis of several points.
The first, and most crucial, point which affirms the probability that Jesus did in fact die on the cross is that the Roman guards were efficient executioners and not likely to be lax in officiating over the penalty of such a public figure. Likewise, the crucifixion is probably the most sure among all information about Jesus of Nazareth, affirmed by multiple, independent sources among Christians and non-Christians alike. Though modern liberal scholarship attempts to undermine many things about Jesus, his death by crucifixion is not one of them.
However, the details provided by the Gospel witnesses regarding the crucifixion provide some astoundingly particular clues that affirm Jesus’ death. Besides clearly stating that Jesus breathed his last on the cross, the gospels note that the Roman guards, in order to expedite the executions of the other condemned men, broke their legs so that they would no longer be able to support themselves as they struggled to breath. The actual cause of death for a crucified man was asphyxiation, due to the position of the body which made it impossible to sustain prolonged breathing. However, it is further noted that the guards did not break the legs of Jesus, because it was determined that he was already dead. Next, the guards drive a spear into Jesus’ side for good measure, at which point it is written, “But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. (John 19:34)” This is surely a peculiar detail to be included, yet modern medical knowledge affirms that pericardial effusion as well as pleural effusion- fluid resembling water that collects in the heart and lungs due to cardiac arrest- would have been expelled had a spear pierced the side of Jesus.
It is sure, then, on the basis of historical consensus and the confirmation of seemingly insignificant details, that Jesus did not survive the crucifixion.
The Hallucination Theory
The hallucination theory posits that the appearances of the resurrected Christ were actually hallucinations on the part of overzealous and emotional followers.
This theory has little ground to stand on due to the nature of the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. Had there been only a handful of witnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus perhaps in one place at one time, the theory might be adequate. However, the accounts describe many sightings by many people, individuals and large groups, in multiple locations, by believers and skeptics alike!
Hallucinations, had they occurred, would have been unlikely to portray Jesus as bodily resurrected. The nature of a hallucination is that it will portray images based upon preexisting ideas or thoughts in the mind. As shown before, the idea of a bodily resurrection of an individual before the general resurrection of the dead at the final judgment would have been non-existent in the minds of the disciples. Given their point of view, had they experienced hallucinations of Jesus, they would have likely seen him as spiritually raised and enjoying the heavenly fellowship of Abraham, awaiting the final judgment.
Lastly, though the hallucinations might account for appearances of Jesus after his death, had the details of these appearances been much different of course, they do not account for the empty tomb or the rapid growth of the church, consisting of individuals fully convinced of the reality of the risen Christ.
The Pagan Influence Theory
The pagan influence theory, one that originated in the late 18th and early 19th century study of comparative religion, suggests that details of Christian theology, such as the resurrection and virgin birth, were adapted from pre-existing religious myth and tradition and were therefore not real events. This theory, which had been entirely debunked prior to a recent resurgence after the publicity of the Jesus Seminar, a radically liberal “think-tank” which rejects most of the tenets of orthodox Christianity, is inadequate for two significant reasons.
The first reason is due to the lack of resemblance that the Christian doctrines actually have to pagan traditions. For example, the resurrection of Jesus was initially compared to the dying and rising tradition of pagan gods like Osiris, yet the character of Jesus’ resurrection is quite different. The dying/rising myth was an intentional symbol meant to emphasize and reflect upon the crop cycle and never referred to an actual historical individual. Furthermore, the “resurrection” of Osiris was actually limited, in that his “risen” state limited him to exploits in the underworld, as apposed to Jesus, who, after the resurrection, was both able to manifest on the Earth and in heaven. What becomes apparent is that pagan “resurrections” were more transitional than transformational. The virgin birth, often compared to the origin of such Greek characters as Hercules, is also quite distinct. While Hercules was said to have been conceived out of the copulation of Zeus and a mortal woman, Jesus’ conception was through the holy spirit acting upon, and preserving, the virginity of Mary. There was not even a shred of the idea of God taking a human form and actually engaging in sexual intercourse with Mary to accomplish this! When one takes a closer look, these doctrines are more dissimilar than bearing any resemblance to one another.
However, history also shows the unlikelihood that any borrowing on the part of Christianity from pagan ideas occurred. It wasn’t until the second century after the crucifixion of Christ that any kind of Christo-pagan synthesis was even found in the Palestinian region. To suggest the opposite, that Christians borrowed from existing sects of pagan mystery religions in the community, would be historically inaccurate and indicative of a lack of understanding of pagan ideas. More importantly, however, the Jewish-ness of Jesus should not be overlooked, nor undermined for the cause of subversive historical maneuvering. Jesus and his followers were distinctly Jewish, and like all Jews, would have found pagan concepts and practices detestable. The Jewish people had a long-established tradition of resisting pagan influence, and it is unlikely that even the crucifixion of Jesus would have changed their beliefs regarding them.
I think that these theories are shown to be woefully inadequate explanations of the evidence we do have concerning Jesus. So, it is on the basis of the resiliency, diversity and plentitude of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, as well as the inadequacy of alternative theories, that I affirm its historicity and confidently establish my faith in Jesus.